Abyei Refugees in Search of Peace

Great Nile Petroleum Operating Corporation. Bentiu, South Sudan. Image by Cedric Gerbehaye / Agence VU. January 2011.

I have never witnessed the grief of a stranger as I did on this afternoon. I was visiting a group of people who had fled Abyei following the attack last weekend by Sudanese government forces. They ran and ran. And then kept walking for five days until they reached Wau, the capital of Western Bahr el Ghazal. They are tired, hungry, and most of all, traumatized.

It was here that I ended up standing beside a woman I have never met, the moment she was told that her son had been killed. Her wail came from deep within. As the scene unfolded I felt a step removed. Uncomfortable. Witnessing her grief while not being at all part of it. And yet I stayed. She tried to tell me something. She spoke no English or Arabic. My translator was suddenly nowhere in sight, and I don’t speak Dinka. Do I leave to find him, or do I stay and hold your hand and pretend I am understanding you?

Among what was now a gathered crowd, almost entirely of women and children, I caught the eye of one man. Help, I communicated without speaking. He came over. “She says her son was killed by an airplane. She says she does not know where his wife and children are. She says he is the only son she has left.”

The scene I witnessed is not an isolated one. The people of Abyei all fled in panic. Some were left behind. Many became separated along the way. Those who have reached safety in Wau are desperately seeking news from each new wave of arrivals.